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Opinion The Ukraine conversation Joe Biden needs to have

Democratic presidential candidate and former vice president Joe Biden meets California voters in Los Angeles on Tuesday.
Democratic presidential candidate and former vice president Joe Biden meets California voters in Los Angeles on Tuesday. (Melina Mara/The Washington Post)
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Former vice president Joe Biden’s astonishing political success over the past week has felt like a bandwagon for sensible politics. But to keep it rolling toward the general election in November, Biden will have to do something his potential rival, President Trump, would never consider: admit that he and his son made mistakes.

Trump’s allies are already aiming their next artillery barrage at Biden for his alleged conflicts of interest with his son Hunter’s business activities in Ukraine. Sen. Ron Johnson (R-Wis.) announced this week that he’s preparing a subpoena for a witness who worked at Burisma — the Ukrainian gas company that paid Hunter Biden handsomely as director while his father was leading Ukraine anti-corruption efforts for the Obama administration.

We all know that Johnson’s foray is just the beginning. The president and his allies have been preparing this assault for more than a year. The impeachment investigation documented that Trump wanted damaging information about Joe Biden so badly that he temporarily cut off military aid to Ukraine to try to obtain it.

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Biden’s denials of wrongdoing have been entirely accurate, but they don’t acknowledge a dimension that’s clear to many Republicans and Democrats: Hunter Biden should have quit the Burisma board, or his father should have withdrawn from the lead role on Ukraine. The two didn’t mix. Biden didn’t do anything corrupt, but his patchwork of careful statements doesn’t address perceptions.

Biden and his son are going to have a confessional moment on this, sooner or later. Better sooner. For this is a story that most Americans can relate to. It’s about a loving father and a son whose life was falling apart. It’s about families in pain and the difficulty of keeping faith with people we love. It brings out what’s most likable in Biden, if he would let himself explain the story honestly.

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Tearing off this scab is just what Biden hasn’t been willing to do. “Anything that smacks of throwing his son under the bus is to him a nonstarter,” explains a member of the Biden inner circle.

Hunter Biden’s story was well narrated by Adam Entous in the New Yorker last July. The piece described a young man with drug, alcohol and marital problems, who joined the Burisma board in 2014 after his beloved brother Beau had the first lesion removed from what would be a fatal brain cancer. Hunter Biden was “in bad shape” at the time, and “fragile,” the close Biden friend told me.

Hunter Biden was warned to avoid Burisma. “I begged Hunter to walk away,” one man who counseled the younger Biden in 2014 told me. It was obvious to him that the controversial Ukrainian company wanted to buff its reputation by adding the Biden name to its board. That’s not an unusual thing with corporate boards — many directors are hired for their connections — but it’s a dubious practice, at best.

But Biden persisted. “I don’t have a choice,” he told the man who advised him against Burisma. He explained that his brother was sick, his father had political ambitions and “I need to make money.”

Joe Biden has told aides that he wasn’t aware that his son had joined the Burisma board until after it had happened. At that time, the vice president had already taken the administration lead on Ukrainian corruption. What should he have done? A former Biden aide says that White House ethics policy was to avoid interaction with independent adult children in any such employment matters. That was ethically correct, but was it wise? The answer to me is clearly not.

Trump and Rudolph W. Giuliani, his personal lawyer, have been pressing Ukrainians since 2018 for dirt about Biden and his son. Giuliani obtained details about the Burisma matter in January 2019 interviews with former prosecutors Viktor Shokin and Yuri Lutsenko (who themselves have been subjects of corruption accusations). Republicans will be replaying versions of this dubious dossier all summer and fall, along with allegations about Hunter Biden’s business dealings in China while his father was vice president.

Hunter Biden himself has stated the obvious: “In retrospect, look, I think that it was poor judgment on my part” to take the Burisma position, he told ABC News last October, adding: “Did I do anything improper? No, not in any way.”

But Joe Biden still bristles. There’s a deep wound here, one that goes back to his first wife’s death when Hunter was a child, to his son Beau’s death, and maybe to a father’s regret at being unable to help mend a hurting child.

This drama is the stuff of real life and, ultimately, of healing and renewal. The elder Biden needs to start telling it, for his son’s sake as much as for his own.

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